Perceived Risk, Real Risk: Scientific Inquiry and Public Concerns About Nuclear Waste Disposal

by William R. Freudenburg, Univ of Wisconsin, Madison, United States,

Document Type: Proceeding Paper

Part of: High Level Radioactive Waste Management 1991


It is becoming clear that, if we are to solve our nuclear waste disposal problems, we will need to deal seriously with public concerns. Such concerns need to be addressed on their own terms: If people perceive a problem to be real, it will be real in its consequences, whatever the official pronouncements may be. Growing evidence makes it clear that concerns over nuclear waste disposal are not limited to small or unrepresentative groups of activists, but rather comprise a virtual consensus in society. In addition, while the common belief was once that the biggest policy need was to deal with disparities between 'real' risks and those that were merely 'perceived,' quantitative research now points to a very different conclusion. While expert judgments are often taken as representing 'real' risks for decision-making purposes, expert judgments often prove susceptible to the same errors as are found among members of the general public. At the same time, the perceptions of the broader public often reflect more wisdom than was once apparent. If we are to deal effectively with radioactive waste disposal problems, in short, we may need a clearer understanding of what it means to live in a technological society. 'Real risks' today include not just the risks of death, which have been substantially reduced by science and technology, but also the risks of recreancy--of cases where those of us in the technical community fail to carry out our duties with the necessary commitment and vigor.

Subject Headings: Risk management | Public health and safety | Public opinions | Radioactive wastes | Waste disposal | Professional societies | Decision making | Radioactive materials

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